Who Lives or Dies

August 30, 2016:

After Tim quits, Batman pays him a visit in his dorm.

Gotham University Dorm

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: oracle nightwing robin red_hood supergirl spoiler

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

When Tim returns from his late evening class, the dorms are a riot of activity. Because it's Tuesday, and everyone has classes tomorrow, and it's approaching the dark evening as summer winds into fall…

…his floor is throwing a kegger.

So there's a lot of noise and bickering and some shoving and making out, and all the riotous noise that accompanies adolescent behaviours.

There are no signs that anyone's entered his room while he's gone. But it probably comes as no shock whatsoever to Tim when the room lights fail to respond, and the curtains near the windowsill billow into a full-length black cape, and a cowl turns to face him.

"We should talk," Batman rasps at the Boy Wonder.

When the lights don't work, Tim instinctively turns to the window — not because he logically thinks through the reason the lights don't work, but through sheer operant conditioning. After years of random appearances, Batman's appearances have become rather normative, even if they happen in odd-ways.

With his book bag still slung over his shoulder, Tim allows the books to drop with a THUD. Organic chemistry continues to be the heaviest tome of all, and once it's no longer on his shoulder, he stretches the muscle with roll of his shoulders.

"You match the curtains," he observes blandly as he drops to the floor and picks up the books one at a time, unloading them on the nearby desk. "Probably means this place needs new curtains." Pause. "Or you need a new look." His eyebrows lift to punctuate the point. "You should go find Robin, Nightwing, or Batgirl. Pretty sure they're more equipped to have a late evening chat."

The bacchanal in the hallway produces a few loud shrieks. Tim looks over his shoulder to the door and just shakes his head.

"They're /working/." That's a subtle jab, there. Batman remains where he stands, one foot balanced on the headboard of Tim's narrow bunk, the other resting on the windowsill. "Which is where /you/ should be."

"Batgirl had to handle the Narrows last night. Nightwing pulled two shifts in a row and handled the docks for you. All of us have had to cut back our patrols to cover your shifts."

"Then Alfred tells me in passing that you're 'done' being Robin and he's got your gear in a storage pod."

"Better start talking, Robin. You've got some explaining to do."

"Tim," he corrects. "I'm Tim. Red Robin is gone, and I'm pretty sure the other Robin," that other guy that Tim has an eternally conflictual relationship with, "is the only one you've got." Pause. "And I'm definitely not him." No, Tim will not be confused for Damian. Ever.

His arms cross over his chest — the most defiant posture he can muster. "I can't do it. I shouldn't have been doing it for months. I'm a liability for you and the others." The answer seems plain enough. "If I keep at this, I'm convinced you'll have a second Robin with murderous vengefulness and a destiny driving him to chaos, mayhem, and Arkham Asylum." His chin lifts, and his tone deadens "I'm doing you a favour."

Batman looks thoroughly unimpressed, and his stare is a cold, nonverbal rebuke.

"I expected you'd have a breakdown someday. It's inevitable. I didn't expect it to lead to you hanging your cape up without so much as a text message. Or that it'd be over a pair of girls."

"You got your heart broken, Tim. It happens," Batman growls. "That's /life/. It happens if you're a billionaire or a garbage hauler. You /can/ do this job, you just don't /want/ to." He descends from his perch, puting him on level with Tim.

"Kara's got her own problems. Fine. She's Superman's family, and that's on him to deal with. You, though-" He glowers at Tim. "You're not a skinny blonde girl with identity issues. You're Red Robin," he reminds the younger man. "You've been Red Robin since you were seven. You just didn't know it until you came to train with us. You're mad at me? fine. Everyone usually is. Punishing the team out of spite, or pique, or envy— that's not acceptable," Batman admonishes him.

Tim squints at Batman, and his face scrunches into an all out glare. "This has… what?" He tries to process what Batman is saying. "It's not over — I'm not heartbroken!" He lifts his hands irritably. "This has nothing to do with Kara. This has nothing to do with Steph. This has — " his eyebrows draw together.

If Batman's intention was to manipulate Tim into ranting about what has actually gotten to him, he succeeds: "This has to do with Talia. Everything to do with Talia. This has to do with the months before when I was away trying to figure out what that — " he can feel a chill curve down his spine, causing his shoulders and back to tense.

The stack of books on the floor has become substantially lessened, but whatever's left is thrown hard against the wall. Tim's eyes lid and he takes a few deep breaths to clear his mind.

There's a beat, then a familiar— if rare— hand rests on Tim's shoulder. Just for a second. Squeezing once. "You're not the first person she's tricked, you know," Batman says, his voice low and… oddly, sympathetic, for once. "The League deals in deceipt and cat's-paws like we play with shadows and theatre. Tools to be used for sowing chaos, or… making weapons."

His hand drops away and Batman's blue eyes drift down a few degrees— staring blankly at a distant wall. "I learned the hardest of lessons from her, Tim," he says in his low, monotone rasp. "Trust. Identity. The desire to prove myself to someone— even the dangers of love. Talia saw through me from day one, and she's never let me forget it. Even bringing Damian back was meant to be an attack, to remind me that I made a mistake once and I'd never be allowed to undo it."

A grim smile touches the corner of his mouth. "One thing Talia never learned, though, was the art of turning a mistake into an advantage. It's a lesson I still teach her, periodically."

The hand at his shoulder has Tim straightening and his jaw tightening. "She's in my head. All the time. Has been for months." His shoulders tense again and he clears his throat. "And Leviathan," he looks pointedly toward Batman, "is terrifying. She's vying for supremacy. She's mad." His eyes drop back to the floor, "She really doesn't like you much."

Of course, 'Miranda's' blatant recruitment and desire to manipulate Tim hadn't anticipated his ability to discern her real identity. "In my mind, she's goading me. Has been for months. Critiquing my form. Dictating back everything wrong. Telling me to resolve," his eyes lid, "and keep one more villain from escaping prison." His cheeks puff out with irritation. "And it's not just wearing the mask. It's the life without it. It's with these girls turning up in my life. She tells me their lives are forfeit. She tells me I've sealed their fates."

His lips purse irritably. "She relays that I don't just get to quit her employ, that I can't just walk away when Id decide I'm not taking a life." Finally his blue eyes turn back to Batman, "And she told me she was right on Friday. Fox and Oracle said we couldn't imprison the casters — that we had to reach a final solution."

His weight shifts from one foot to the other, "I can accept it logically. I can see that people can't be held." His throat clears and his head shakes, "But I can't do it. If I do it then… then she wins. Then I may as well hand myself back over to them."

Batman listens quietly, then moves to Tim's narrow desk and turns the chair around so he can sit on it, hands resting on the arms of the chair and his cowl's lenses sliding back so something more akin to a human face can be seen.

"Ra's al Ghul told me the same thing about my friends and family, Robin," Batman says, his voice low and even. "And the Joker. And Riddler, and Two-Face, and dozens of others over the years."

His eyes go flinty with remembered pain. "Once in a while, they're right."

"You're on your heels here, Robin. You're letting her dictate the terms of the fight- mentally, emotionally. If you met her face to face, she'd have already won because she's put the battelfield in your brain, not on the ground. You've already convinced yourself that anything she does is your fault."

There's a moment of quiet, there. "Do you understand why we don't kill, now?" he says, sounding almost… tired. "You think you're the first person who hasn't been tempted to do it? To swear to yourself that you won't take a life, and then find that /one exception/? Most people make promises that they break all the time. No more cigarettes. Less indulgences. Fewer vices. Few folks can stick to that."

"Superman and I don't agree on much," Batman rasps. "But we agree to that hard rule against taking a life. When you're capable of what you are— you, Robin— the first time you open that door, you'll find it's almost impossible to shut. Choosing to kill controls other people, but you've lost control of yourself. And it spirals from there. You destroy Talia with a car bomb. Now you're unleashed, so you look for other problems to 'solve'. You kill Joker tomorrow. Then hunt down Two-Face after that and break his neck. Then, one day, you and Jason face off and you have 'no choice' but to kill him. Then someday, Kara snaps and flips a car over, and you realize again— you have no choice but to kill her."

His words keep coming, the tone quiet but hitting like hammers. "You wake up one morning and you can't count the faces in your memory of everyone you've killed. You know that I'm coming for you next, and you decide that it's kill or be killed, so you blow up the Batcave, kidnap Alfred, and lure me into a deathtrap in Gotham— and you look in a passing car window, and you can't even recognize yourself any more because of /how far/ off the reservation you've gone with a series of perfectly reasonable little logical leaps."

"That's the real danger about taking a life, Tim," Batman says, pointedly. "I /know/ what I will become if I let myself do it, even once. And you yourself said— you're more like me than you like to admit."

"I always understood," Tim offers back. "And who am I to decide who lives or dies. I didn't finish what I was doing because the cost was too high." He scrubs his face with his hands. "I can't…" he starts and shakes his head. "I can't follow through on what the Fox and Oracle think needs to be done. What they tell me needs to happen. I believe that there is something imminently dangerous in Gotham. I believe the city is imploding on itself and that mayhem skirts the edges into something that will consume every drop of good left in our god-forsaken city. I can see it. I'm not blind."

"But I can't do it. I can't take a life." He levels a look back at Batman. "I know that.
I struck a man hard with a blade — flaying him open like I was dissecting him in my biology class. And I couldn't finish it." Pause. "And then the Fox saw fit to blame me for a family's death because I didn't finish 'the job.'" His eyebrows lift expectantly at Batman. "I can't decide which is worse. Giving in and following Talia's way — The Fox's way and seeing innocent people die while losing myself and entering that downward spiral where you will absolutely put me in Arkham. OR seeing our city burn." His throat clears. "Because we're getting awfully close to that being the line."

With a heavier sigh, his head shakes. "But that isn't why I quit. It's that when I did cut that man's flesh, her voice told me she was right. And for a moment I believed her. I really felt Gotham to be unsalvageable, and that it was time to torch the city." He shakes his head, "I can't think that and wear that costume. My gear means something. Robin means something. And it's more than who I am. More than who Dick, Jason, or Damian are or ever will be."

"Fox isn't blaming you. You're blaming yourself," Batman reprimands Tim. "Do they even /teach/ psychology at this school?" Batman mutters, sotto voce.

"This is a conversation I've had many times, Robin," Batman rasps. "With Dick. With Jason, too. Even with Rachel Dawes and Gordon, and anyone else who puts themselves in the public service. Why do it? There are always more criminals. There are always cowards, and thieves, and murderers and rapists. People who take and destroy."

"Robin's a title. Like Batman, is— a symbol. But the name's only as strong as the man behind the mask," Batman gravels. "Look at Nightwing. He's more like me than any of you, and… he rose above it all. Jason was the least akin to us and he fell the furthest when he was tested."

"I'm not Batman because I'm above being tempted, Robin. I'm not a god. I'm not inhuman. I'm Batman because I control myself. I don't let Talia or Ra's dictate the terms of my morality. Joker doesn't get to dictate to me where blame goes. Alfred doesn't control where Bruce Wayne ends and Batman begins."

"Gotham might very well burn. But if it burns, then I can look at the fire and say I gave everything I had to stop it from happening. I can't control the city— I can't control people, and I shouldn't. I can only control myself, and deal with the ones who seek to control others."

"Yeaaaah… I don't think you're right about that," Tim replies regarding Fox's blame. "He put the death of a child on my and Babs' shoulders, even though we weren't there when she passed — all because I didn't kill the fellow who killed them. I told him that's not how responsibility for life works. I can't work the way they're saying we have to work to defeat this enemy. Not without losing myself." His eyes trail to the textbooks. "And while Jack Drake and I didn't always get along, I did make him one promise when he gave me his blessing to do all of this — that I wouldn't sacrifice everything for it." His eyes squint. "There isn't much I'm not willing to lose. My principles being one. My sanity the other."

He frowns and his head turns to the side, "I'm not prepared to off these magic types, even if there is nowhere that can hold them." He swallows hard. "I don't know," he utters softly about nothing in particular; the general not-knowing seems to weigh on him.

"Nightwing is Mister Optimistic. He doesn't like it either, by the way. The way we're being told to confront this enemy." Tim's fingers rake through his hair, "And Jason — " he shrugs " — I don't want to be that. I saw that. That can't be my future. I don't like Chinese food enough." The last is mumbled.

He sucks on the inside of his cheek, "I don't know if I'm worthy of the symbol anymore," it's a casual assessment. "It means something to me — even before I took on that mantle. I can't warp it."

Batman's hand grips Tim's shoulder and pulls him around to face a scowl. "That's not how morality works, Robin," he growls, before the hand drops. "You /know/ that. That's how Fox and Ra's and the Leage want morality to work— because that leaves the people at the top justified in taking total control of society. That logic is flawed. You take responsibility for every action of every human everwhere— how far does that go? Where does it stop? It stops with you becoming /just like Talia/."

"Talia's attacking you at your most vulnerable place because she wants you to be more like her. She wants you to stop being the sheepdog and start being the rancher, the one who decides who lives or dies, who gets culled and who gets out of line. She wants to to style yourself like the League does, as the arbiters of morality, and to kill anyone and everyone who threatens that."

""We don't fight crime, Robin. We fight for freedom. To fail or succeed— to exercise free will."

There's a beat after Batman finishes, and he steps to the window again, for once not just pulling his shadowy vanish on Tim. "We need you, Robin. You might not want to do the work, but you can't help but be who you are— and you're the Red Robin. You have the talent and the skill to help people, and all you're doing here" he gestures at the dorms, at Gotham U "is hiding from yourself."

He pauses, then turns and disappears out the window with a flickering of his cloak, leaving Tim alone in the dark and quiet of his dorm room… surrounded by the sounds of a kegger and party and adolescent hooplah, and yet arguably, even more alone.

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